Come late January or February, Southeast Asia's ethnic Chinese community throws the biggest holiday of the year: Chinese New Year (or the Lunar New Year) – and everybody's invited! This feast lasts for 15 days, beginning on the first day of the Chinese traditional calendar.
For Southeast Asia's ethnic Chinese and their neighbors, this is a time for getting together with family and friends, settling debts, serving feasts, and wishing one another prosperity for the year to come.
The Chinese New Year Schedule
Chinese New Year is a moveable feast relative to the Gregorian Calendar most commonly used in the West. The Chinese lunar calendar begins on the following Gregorian dates:
2019 - February 5
2020 - January 25
2021 - February 12
2022 - February 1
But that's just day one! The fifteen day celebration that follows will unfold in the following manner, adhering to Chinese New Year traditions set for thousands of years:
New Year’s Eve: people troop to their birthplaces to catch up with the rest of their families and eat heaping big feasts. Firecrackers are lit to scare away bad luck, although Singapore has made it illegal for private citizens to light their own fireworks.
The 7th day, Renri: known as “Everyone’s Birthday”, families traditionally get together to eat the tossed raw-fish salad known as yu sheng. Participants toss the salad as high as they can with their chopsticks to invite prosperity into their lives.
The 9th day, Hokkien New Year: this day is particularly significant to Hokkien Chinese: on the ninth day of the New Year (it is said), the Hokkien survived a massacre by hiding in a field of sugarcane. Since then, Hokkiens have thanked the Jade Emperor for his intervention on the 9th day, making offerings of sugarcane stalks tied together with red ribbons.
The 15th day, Chap Goh Meh: The last day of the New Year celebration, this day is also the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day, as unmarried Chinese ladies toss tangerines into bodies of water, expressing fond wishes for good husbands.
Chinese communities all throughout Southeast Asia are expected to have a blast when the Lunar New Year rolls around, but the region’s loudest celebrations occur in Vietnam, Penang (Malaysia) and in Singapore.
Chinese New Year is the biggest event on the Singapore festival calendar, bar none. The majority ethnic Chinese community pulls together for parties, parades, local food binges, street bazaars and Chinatown shopping sales, all for what may be the longest New Year celebration in the region, lasting all of seven weeks!
These family-friendly celebrations in Singapore focus on the Chinese ethnic enclave, but spill out throughout the island. New Year light-ups illuminate Chinatown’s major streets, accompanied by street markets with over 400 stalls selling Chinese handicrafts, holiday-specific foods like pineapple tarts, pork jerky (bak kwa) and rice cakes (nian gao). In restaurants throughout Singapore, locals gather together and toss the festive salad known as yu sheng.
The Singapore River Hong Bao condenses the festival into a theme-park-like experience on the river – where visitors can watch traditional Chinese stage shows, have their name written out in traditional calligraphy, or gaze at giant lanterns that evoke Chinese history and holiday traditions. Visit the River Hong Bao – Official Site for more information.
Then there’s Chingay – a two-night parade and street party held towards the end of Chinese New Year. Formerly limited to Chinese ethnic locals, the parade now welcomes over thousands of performers from Singapore and from far-away countries like Indonesia, Denmark and Taiwan.
Read more: Chinese New Year in Singapore.
The majority Chinese community on the Malaysian island/state of Penang throw the country’s most boisterous new year party – but it’s a family thing first and foremost.
As the eve of the New Year begins, Malaysian Chinese converge on their ancestral homes to eat, gamble, and celebrate with their families. Outside their homes, Penangites mix with Malaysian visitors and foreign tourists, bringing them to the following celebrations:
Penang CNY Celebration: a street party and open house held around the George Town Heritage District, the CNY Celebration is organized by the Penang Chinese Clan Council (PCCC) to highlight Penang’s UNESCO-recognized old temples and clan houses. Visitors experience traditional Chinese performing arts like lion dances and Chingay performances.
Temple festivities at Kek Lok Si and Snake Temple: Two of Penang’s most celebrated temples hold spectacular events during the Chinese New Year festival.
On the sixth day of the festival, the Penang Snake Temple celebrates its patron Chor Soo Kong's birthday with a "fire watching" ceremony and Chinese opera performances. And for the duration of the Chinese New Year calendar, Kek Lok Si Temple lights up its surroundings with 200,000 light bulbs and 10,000 lanterns.
Pai Ti Kong Festival: On the ninth day of the festival, the Hokkien of Penang celebrate their group’s traditional new year at Weld Quay’s Chew Jetty. Setting out banquets full of food and potent liquids, the Hokkien eat and drink until midnight, upon which they offer thanks to the Jade Emperor God for saving them from doom.
Chap Goh Meh Celebration: On the fifteenth night of the Chinese New Year, single ladies crowd the Penang Esplanade; it’s believed that throwing oranges into the sea will increase the odds of their finding a suitable husband.
Read more: Chinese New Year in Penang.
The cities of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hue throw the best Tet festivities, and the best prospects for tourists to have fun (everywhere else in Vietnam slows down to a crawl, as most locals go back to their hometowns to celebrate New Year – book your transportation early.)
Hanoi looks at its Tet best from the second to the seventh day of Chinese New Year, with celebrations that recall significant events in Vietnamese history.
The Dong Da Festival commemorates a victory over Chinese invaders on a mass burial mound; the Co Loa Festival sees a parade of locals in traditional Vietnamese costume; and a calligraphy festival at the Temple of Literature brings together artists and locals looking to buy papers with lucky Chinese characters.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) starts off its Tet festivities with fireworks at the stroke of midnight, setting off at six areas across the city. The New Year festival mostly centers around Cholon (the city’s Chinatown), where street markets and Vietnamese food stalls see plenty of takers.
Two local markets open only during the Tet holidays – a flower market at District 8’s Tau Hu Canal, its wares shipped in from nearby Tien Giang and Ben Tre for holiday takers; and a book festival on District 1, turning the streets of Mac Thi Buoi, Nguyen Hue and Ngo Duc Ke into a bustling open-air bookstore.
Finally, the former imperial capital of Hue has reclaimed its royal heritage, most obviously through the raising of the cay neu, or Tet pole, on the Imperial Citadel grounds. Raised on the first day, the cay neu is intended to drive away misfortune for the coming year.
Read more: Chinese New Year (Tet) in Vietnam.
Chinese New Year in Indonesia: Skewered Celebration
In Indonesia, the city of Singkawang in West Kalimantan (Borneo) celebrates Chap Goh Meh with its own take on banishing evil spirits.
A massive parade down the main thoroughfare on Chap Goh Meh involves the local ritual known as Tatung, the rite of driving away demons by the act of self-torture: participants stick steel spikes through cheeks and poke their chests with swords, all without inflicting harm.